When Extremes Affect Health
This was the message that I received on my cell phone this morning from my mother in Pennsylvania. I currently live more than a thousand miles south, where it too gets cold, but not to this extreme. It does not make it feel any better to me having acclimated to my new climate temperatures, it is cold. But I do know what 0 degrees feels like.
There was a time that I loved the cold weather, tons of snow, which for some reason traditionally fall around this time of year, nearly every year. At one time, I was a great skier, unable to wait for the next season to roll around. Of course, there were the hours upon hours spent sledding, and yes, playing football with the neighborhood kids in two feet of snow.
And of course, there is nothing as beautiful in both sound and beauty as fresh falling snow.
I had always dreamed of living somewhere, that snow was a dominant weather characteristic because I was always more comfortable with cold, being able to keep warm, as opposed to being in the heat, trying to keep cool.
I could enjoy the warmer weather, whether it would be in the mountains, or maybe a brief stay on the beach, but it was never an environment that I thought I could ever stay in.
But things changed in a big way following my open heart surgery in 2008. Just like my cardiac symptoms, I had pulmonary issues as well, for a long time, I just simply ignored them. But when it was discovered that my cancer treatments for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma had caused a life threatening situation with my heart, it was not soon after that more testing would reveal the many other late developing side effects that had become a part of my life. I have written about my one of my cardiac issues in prior posts. Today I am going to talk about pulmonary.
I was diagnosed with Restrictive Lung Disease, which for easiest understanding, it means exactly what it spells. The residuals of my treatments have left me with my lungs being only at 75% as confirmed with extensive pulmonary function testing performed by one of the top hospitals in the country, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. My results are not posted below, but the pictures show what the testing results would look like.
Until my cardiac episode had been diagnosed and treated, I was totally ignorant of what was happening to my body since my days with treatments. I was no longer being followed up by doctors once I hit my five year mark. But looking back, symptoms existed long before my surgery.
One of the most obvious symptoms I had was dyspnea, difficulty breathing or what some would consider shortness of breath (also a cardiac symptom by the way). I often had what was a dry cough, which occasionally resulted in blood with anything I coughed up. This was often treated as an infection prior to knowing I had RLD. Most often times I felt as if it could possibly be compared to having an asthma attack, only I had never had asthma before, and inhalers were used initially to treat me, but of course provided no relief.
There are two things that cause my RLD to act up to levels where it can actually cause a panic attack with me. It is one thing to have to try and catch your breath, but when you cannot, and you feel your heart ready to jump out of your chest, your body and mind starts to react in ways that you cannot control. But exercise and extreme weather are both known triggers to episodes of my lung problems.
I avoid all strenuous exercise because this is a guarantee to trigger an episode. Exercise for me is confined to walking and that is it. And I must walk on a flat surface. Walking up a flight of stairs will leave me gasping for air. I cannot even walk with a fast pace without becoming short of breath.
But extreme weather is my main culprit. I spent a lot of time walking from the parking garage to the building I worked in which meant I was often dealing with high heat and humidity during the summer months, and brutal cold and winds during the winter. So, as you can see, the only time I would be okay, is basically if I stayed indoors, where the climate was controlled constantly. But that was not realistic.
A typical day for me, regardless of winter or summer would go as follows. I would get into my car, drive to work and park in the garage. I would walk to my building which took about five minutes. But by the time I would get there, in most cases, my lungs would have shut down on me. Because no medication would work, I would spend the next half hour, breathing the indoor climate controlled air to reverse what my lungs had been treated to outdoors. On most occasions, this would work, but on a rare occurrence, the episode could last for hours. The last severe episode I had resulted in me being transported to the emergency room for a cardiac episode.
So, in the extreme heat and humidity, I would spend nearly all of my time indoors, in air conditioning. There was no relief for me outside. The sad thing was that I owned an inground swimming pool that I could never enjoy during heat waves, because as long as I was breathing the hot and humid air, it was getting into my lungs.
In the winter, and sometimes in the cooler autumn weather, I was often seen wearing a scarf around my nose and mouth to cut down on the cooler air entering my lungs. Whereas with the heat and humidity causing it to be difficult to breath, with the cold and wind also came added pain, extreme pain. I often received odd looks from passersby seeing me wearing a scarf or turtle neck covering my mouth and nose once the temperatures got into the lower 50 degree range. But it reduced the amount of air I was exposed to until I could get into the building, and yes, try to settle my lungs down. So here is someone who loves snow, loves to ski, with two beautiful little girls who love to spend time in the snow… and now tries to avoid it.
My heart goes out to everyone up north right now, dealing with the extreme cold temperatures, and ridiculous amounts of snow. My daughters enjoy showing me pictures of the snow what used to be our yard. And just as when I was a child, my daughters definitely enjoy the snow.
But the truth be told at this point, the only way that I can enjoy that weather would be to become a window-licker, simply looking at the beautiful scenery from the inside of a home. I used to love the outdoor silence that came with each snowfall. I could always tell when snow was coming because one of the few things that Pollo, my golden retriever could enjoy, would stick his muzzle in the air, and actually be able to “smell” snow coming.
Which makes it even more odd that I could actually survive in the climate that I currently live in now. I live in the deep south, where heat and humidity are more than common. But I passed the climate test with my lungs this summer keeping any discomfort to a minimum because I kept the exposure to a minimum without completely isolating myself. I spend the majority of my time indoors, with my outdoor exposure limited while not being restricted. I avoid the hottest times of the days, and am always able to get inside to air conditioning if I feel a pulmonary episode coming on. But because the exposure in length of time is more controlled, so is the episode.
And there are other factors that can aggravate my RLD (stress is a major factor discussed in other posts), and sometimes it is a combination of several. But doing whatever I must, to keep these factors from wreaking havoc on my life, must be done. And so far it has been working for me.
And I will have more memories with my daughters in the white of winter during at least one of our visits with each other every year (I will be watching from the lodge), while the rest will be with me here in my southern home.
I also have restrictive lung disease and when i say i can t take the NY winters, my family really doesn t belueve me. I had CHF this past October, take inhalers that don t do anything and my pulmonary function tests show a very poor functioning left lung. So when I say it’s a hardship walking in the cold wearing 6 layers, tights, 2 pairs of leggings, socks, earmuffs, 2 hoods and a shawl, why don t they get it? I dread going to MSKCC the next few weeks because of the cold and walking up those darn subway steps.. The steps are extremely difficult for me under all circumstances but especially in the winter. I’ve come to know where all the elevators and escalaters are located in the NY subway system.
Paul, thanks for posting your story. At least we’re not alone here.
Davina, I learned a long time ago from a late friend of mine, and dealing with the NY subways getting to MSKCC. I know it is not easy. If the subways get too difficult for you, check with “Nick” the concierge on Lexington Ave. (the really friendly greeter) – he may have another less stressful suggestion for travel. And tell him his old friend “Paul the writer” said hi.